Crowdfunding the Recovery of a Lost Spacecraft

The ISEE-3 spacecraft.

The ISEE-3 spacecraft.

The hackers behind the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project  have moved on to a different challenge. Not content with images, this time they want to recover a whole spacecraft.

The ISEE-3 probe was launched in 1978. After completing it’s original mission—it was the first spacecraft ever to enter a halo orbit at one of the Earth-Sun Lagrangian points—studying the interaction between the Earth’s magnetic field and the solar wind, it was repurposed—leaving its halo orbit. The spacecraft was then sent on its way to intercept Comet Giacobini-Zinner in 1985, and then Comet Halley in 1986 as part of the Halley Armada. Afterwards, left in a heliocentric orbit, it was then used for  investigations of coronal mass ejections until 1997 when it was decommissioned by NASA.

However after the Comet Halley encounter in the 80’s the ISEE-3 was intentionally left in an orbit that would—eventually—bring the 35 year old spacecraft home, and if Dennis Wingo and Keith Cowing have their way, it’ll return to a warm welcome from its creators.

They’ve set up a crowdfunding effort to cover the costs of getting back in contact with the spacecraft, and ordering it to fire its thrusters one last time to put it into Earth orbit. The intricate trajectory necessary to make that happen—including a flyby of the Moon at an altitude of less than 50 km—has already been calculated by Robert Farquhar, the original mission design specialist from ISEE-3’s Halley encounter.

Our plan is simple: we intend to contact the ISEE-3 (International Sun-Earth Explorer) spacecraft, command it to fire its engine and enter an orbit near Earth, and then resume its original mission – a mission it began in 1978.

If successful ISEE-3 will spend its retirement as a platform for citizen science, with smartphone apps—and a twitter feed—giving students direct access to the instruments onboard the ageing spacecraft.

The instrumentation carried by the ISEE-3 spacecraft.

The instrumentation carried by the ISEE-3 spacecraft.

While the spacecraft carries no imaging cameras, 12 of the probes 13 onboard instruments were still working back in 1999—the  last time NASA contacted the spacecraft—and it’d be a powerful tool in the hands of educators allowing amateurs and students access to instrumentation to measure plasma, high-energy particles and the magnetic fields in Earth orbit.

This is a great opportunity to put what is still world class instrumentation into the hands of the community. But orbital dynamics means that there’s only one chance to do so, and contact must be reestablished with the probe in late May or early June to ensure that the burn into Earth orbit happens during the correct window—and there are just 24 days left to find the money to do it.

Space Robots, Mars Rovers, and NASA Scientists coming to Maker Faire Bay Area


The NorCal Mars Society is making better rovers for human planetary exploration.

The NorCal Mars Society is making better rovers for human planetary exploration.

Space exploration is a dream near and dear to many makers’ hearts and is a great way to encourage kids’ interest in math and science. But it doesn’t take a government agency to put a satellite into space anymore. From crowdsourcing space initiatives and micro satellites to bringing makerspaces to Mars, these makers will be showing off the latest and greatest developments and challenges in space research at Maker Faire Bay Area on May 17-18.



NorCal Mars Rover Project

The NorCal Mars Society is back at Maker Faire to show off their rover prototypes and convince you that our future is on the red planet.


pisces project

Pisces Project

The Canadian Space society aims to create two fish-like robots “equipped with cameras/ sensors/tools to: assist in monitoring the environment in/outside the space station, aid astronauts on missions, or take the public on live virtual tours of the space station.”



From maker Liam Kennedy about his Raspberry Pi-powered tracker:

The International Space Station passes overhead most populated areas of the world every day. If only you knew it was there. ISS-Above lights up when the ISS is nearby, but that’s not all. It can also tweet a message to the Space Station and it has its own built-in web server to give you a ton of information about current and future passes.


Personal Cosmos takes data like temperature readings or satellite images and projects it onto the inside of a spherical display. Keep track of what’s happening on Earth or even map data from the moon or Mars.


SpaceGAMBIT – Hackerspace Space Program

From Program Manager Jerry Isdale:

SpaceGAMBIT is a 2 year $500k US Government (DARPA) grant funded project to get makers involved in Space education, research and development. We will present summary of the projects funded in first year and talk about our 2nd year projects. The first of our year 2 endeavors is a ”Portable Workstation Contest” with which will be concluding about the time of the Bay Area Maker Faire.


Yuri’s Night: The DIY Space Holiday


Yuri's Night 2011 in SPACE!

The crew of Expedition 27 celebrate Yuri’s Night in 2011.
Commander Dmitry Kondratyev and Flight Engineers Andrey Borisenko, Catherine ‘Cady’ Coleman, Alexander Samokutyaev, Paolo Nespoli and Ron Garan. Photo credit: NASA

When I think of “DIY”, I typically think of physical objects. Maybe you do too. At it’s core, the DIY culture is about creating things yourself instead of waiting on someone else to do it for you. Like any community, some people think in a bit bigger and broader terms. The team behind Yuri’s Night created a world-wide space party and sparked a global holiday celebrating human spaceflight.

Yuri’s Night is a grassroots global space holiday celebrated around the world every April 12. The date is a dual anniversary in the history of space exploration: Yuri Gagarin launched on the first human spaceflight on April 12, 1961; and the first launch of a US space shuttle was exactly 20 years later when Columbia lifted off on April 12, 1981.

Yuri's Night LA 2013

Yuri’s Night LA 2013

Initially conceived as a single event in LA by three friends, the idea for a “party for space” quickly spread to all corners of the planet, via the Space Generation Advisory Council to the UN. Over the years, a team and a non-profit were built to keep a website running, providing publicity and resources for free (logos, music, ideas), and encourage individuals around the planet to create their own unique celebration of human spaceflights. Parties have been organized on all seven continents, on the International Space Station (see above!), and even on Mars via the Curiosity rover.

Mad scientists in Foot Pound Force

Science + Music in Huntsville, AL.
Photo Credit: David Hewitt

“What I love about Yuri’s Night is that it gives everyone a chance to connect with the awe and wonder of space exploration in any way that is right for them,” says Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides, co-founder of Yuri’s Night. “No matter who you are, what you do, or where you are, you can be inspired to host a party.”

Events have ranged from baking moon-shaped cakes and a home viewing of Spaceballs to a 10,000-person hip-hop concert spectacle. There was an event at a custard stand with telescopes. NASA centers around the country have gotten into the spirit too, collaborating with the costumed stormtroopers of the 501st Legion and hosting gigantic art works from Burning Man groups. Even daycare centers and museums have gotten into the mix with space-themed events. In 2009, the TV show Ace of Cakes showcased a cake in the shape of Jupiter created for a Yuri’s Night event at the visitor’s center for NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center.

Sputnik helmet at Yuri's Night Bay Area 2007

Bay Area Maker
Photo Credit: Scott Beale/Laughing Squid

“Millions of people have come together in wonder and excitement to dream about where we’re going, explore where we are, and celebrate our spaceflight heritage,” says operations director and master of electrons Jeffrey Alles. “And we do it all on a shoestring budget with an all-volunteer staff.” The Yuri’s Night volunteer team keeps the web servers running and a Twitter account going, but the actual events are all organized individually.

“Anyone can have a Yuri’s Night,” says executive director Ryan Korbick. “It’s like Saint Patrick’s Day for space with the intent of bringing people of mixed backgrounds together to celebrate human spaceflight with an iconic story at its roots.”

“We are open-source, crowd-sourced, and decentralized,” he says. “We allow creative ideas to flourish and after 14 years there’s still no way to predict the imaginative events we will see next or the exotic locations helping rock the planet.”

If you want to show off your creativity, there’s still time to pull together some ideas, grab your friends, and have your own Yuri’s Night party!

Celebrating Yuri’s Night at the South Pole

Celebrating Yuri’s Night at the South Pole
Photo credit: Kris Amundson

Full disclosure: I proudly serve as one of those unpaid volunteers on the Board of Directors for Yuri’s Night and help organize events in Washington, D.C.

We’re Starry Eyed in the Maker Shed!


We’re pretty grounded folks here in the Maker Shed, but every so often we find our heads in the clouds dreaming of potential kits and projects.  With DIY Space Week upon us, we thought it would be prudent to share some of our favorite space-related goods and why we love them. Our space wares range from the super-technical to items of whimsy, so there’s something for everyone.


We recently acquired some awesome spectrometry tools from Public Labs, a non-profit community of environmental scientists.  Spectrometers split up the many different colors that light is composed of and help you identify the various wavelengths, and are commonly used in astronomy. We have two different kits, the first being a Foldable Mini-Spectrometer that attaches to the camera on your phone to create a simple, but powerful experimental tool. The second is a more complex Desktop Spectrometry Kit, which is assembled in a half an hour and then you can be off to collect spectra. The non-profit also has free software (SpectralWorkbench) and a community to share your results with!

If you’re looking for some out of this world content, we have tons of titles to choose from regarding space. In particular MAKE Volume 24 orbited around space relations, and is chock-full of projects like a homemade Yagi antenna to to tune yourself into satellite-speak, a DIY ion engine, and backyard astrophotography. Projects aside, the night sky is simply breathtaking, but what are you really looking at? The Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders is a perfect (and gorgeous) starting point for someone interested in not just constellations, but star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies as well. 

Serious about space discovery? We have tiered content for whatever level of astronomy know-how you are currently at. DIY Instruments for Amateur Space is for one who’s just dipping their toes into the niche, with information about what you can measure with sensors and as well as the five essential design limits: power, bandwidth, resolution, computing, and legal limitations. DIY Satellite Platforms is for when you are ready to launch your own device into the ether– it’s the first in a line of four titles, and the starter book gives great information about components and sourcing, learning about launch options, and creating a timeline.  The second in the series is Surviving Orbit the DIY Way, which prepares your satellite for launch, testing readiness for rocket thrusts and also giving overview of what space is like and how orbits work. Sandy Atunes, the author of these texts, recently wrote a post with some more great pointers. 

Real Star Planetarium

To bring the wonder of the skies into your home, check out the Real Star Planetarium Kit. This neat DIY contraption is from our Japanese friends at Gakken, who provide us with an awesome line of products.  This rotating pinhole planetarium projects the night sky onto your walls– see if you can spot the Southern Cross!

If space isn’t your cup of tea, don’t worry.  We have plenty of other diverting kits in the Maker Shed, stop on by and see if there’s something for you!

Q&A: KickSat’s Zac Manchester and Andy Filo


KickSat's Zac Manchester poses with the mothership.

KickSat’s Zac Manchester poses with the mothership.

Back in 2011, Zac Manchester launched a Kickstarter for hundreds of small satellites, to be programmed by backers. The Sprites, as these little “chipsats” are called, would be packed into a CubeSat, via a mechanism built by Andy Filo, and launched aboard SpaceX’s CRS-3 rocket. The project got delayed, then delayed again. But with an official launch date slated for this coming Monday, we caught up with Manchester and Filo to talk about citizen space exploration, the maker movement, and how they work together.

Editor’s note: The KickSat team is looking for people to listen to their satellites next week. The Sprites will only be aloft for a few days, and they want as many data points as possible. On GitHub, Manchester has posted instructions for how to build a ground station and track Sprites on your own. It’s easy, he says; get involved!

KickSat is scheduled to launch on Monday. How do you feel about it? Andy Filo: We’re keeping our fingers crossed. Anything can happen. We’re very excited. The vehicle we’re on, CRS-3, is a really cool vehicle to be on, but it’s also had a lot of delays. So we’re about a year out from where we’d originally hoped to launch from.

Zac Manchester: There have been many, many delays. This is just kind of par for the course in aerospace. Launches always get delayed, that’s just the way it goes. It’s not really anybody’s fault, it’s just, technical things come up.

Space is still hard and exotic and all that. And it’s still kind of a big deal. It’s not the sort of daily or even weekly or monthly occurrence where things go off on regular schedules. There’s a few launches a year and they’re often fraught with all kinds of uncertainty and crazy things happen and that’s the way it is.

I think that we’re hopefully getting to a place now where these things are more regular, becoming more routine, and things are getting easier. That’s definitely happening with a lot of the new commercial space stuff. Not that there hasn’t been commercial space stuff for decades, but I think there’s a new focus on it, and new types of people getting involved. So it’s going to become more and more routine, I think, which is a good thing.

People like makers are seeing this become an actual possibility. ZM: Yeah, makers, and there’s now a whole bunch of Silicon Valley startups. There’s more players getting involved, and I think that is going to lead to lower costs and more frequent launches. With CubeSats, which is what we built for KickSat, there’s kind of a standard in terms of what the thing has to look like, the dimensions, how much it weighs, and then there’s also standardized testing. The way I see this going, you buy a kit and you build your little satellite and then you send it off in the mail and it gets launched by somebody who will integrate it with a bunch of other tiny satellites and launch them together.

It’s not an easy process to go through, and I think that streamlining that and making it work better is going to be an important thing in the next few years, as more people try to do things in space.

AF: The one takeaway from everybody who’s gone through the process is, space is hard. People are currently talking about, how do we reinvent space, how do we make space more accessible? The programming is set up to be very Arduino-like. The schematics and the data to build the satellites are posted on the Github website, so if someone’s ambitious and they want to build them, they actually can.

How did you get involved? What’s in your background that made you want to create something like this? ZM: I’m a long-time space nerd. I got a degree in applied physics at Cornell, and I got involved in this stuff as an undergrad, as a junior. This ChipSat idea has been floating around for about 10 years, and our group at Cornell has been kind of pioneering it. I came in at the right time when the technology was just getting to the point where we could actually build these things, cheaply, with off the shelf parts — mostly because of smartphones. Almost all the parts on the ChipSat are from the consumer electronics industry; they’re the sorts of things that are on smartphones. And most of these parts didn’t exist more than five years ago, so it’s just the right timing where there’s all these sensors available, all these things that you can buy for $2 on SparkFun, and they’re just the right kind you need for a satellite.

AF: I did the mechanicals of the KickSat, coming up with how the actual KickSats would be held into the frame, how they would be deployed, and even how to spin them up. We actually used the antenna as a spring that deploys the ChipSat and puts a spin on it. It keeps them sun facing. This has been a technique that’s been used in satellites since the early days. A spring mechanism is a cheap and reliable way to store energy, and to impart spin, to give it stability so it’s just not in a tumble when it comes out.

In our case, we have solar cells, and we want them to be sun-facing. And also by having it in a stable manner, it’s radio transmission is relatively consistent, as opposed to being in a random tumble. The mission profile is to launch the mothership and have it deploy in a stable manner, and then to deploy the ChipSats. They have a magnetometer and a gyroscope on them, so what they measure is any magenetic flux that’s changing in the upper atmosphere (low earth orbit). And there’s drag from our atmosphere, so even though you’re in space, atmospheric drag is still a significant factor.

It hasn’t deployed yet, but at least on the ground phase and the testing phase, we were able to leverage 3D printing to come up with a deployment mechanism that would be reliable, that could withstand the vacuum and the temperature extremes of space. Sprite-NoBackground On Kickstarter, you raised nearly three times your goal. Did you have to adapt to be able to incorporate a whole bunch of extra sprites? ZM: Yeah, we built a bigger satellite is basically what happened. Initially, we benchmarked the CubeSat standard, which is what KickSat is — it’s sort of a mothership for all the sprites. That standard comes in units; a 1U or one-unit CubeSat is 10 by 10 by 10 centimeters. They go in increments of that 1U size, so you can have a 1U, a 2U, a 3U CubeSat. When we ended up with the extra money, we built a 3U CubeSat instead, and fit more sprites in.

AF: Originally, every launch vehicle had dead weight in it, used to trim the flight characteristics. Usually it’s a piece of lead or titanium or something, and sometimes it’s ejected, sometimes it’s not. But someone said Hey, instead of carrying up dead weight, why don’t we carry up really small satellites that weigh the same amount? So that’s where the whole CubeSat and the form factor and everything came up: Why don’t you take up something for the betterment of mankind? NASA actually mandated that every launch vehicle that they charter has the ability to deploy satellites from them.

How are people using your Sprites, or what will they be doing once they’re up there? ZM: one of my favorites was the British Interplanetary Society; a group of guys there got together and got a developer kit and came up with a pretty cool experiment. They’re taking data from a random number generator and filling the RAM on the microcontroller with that, and then reading it back a little while later, and just kind of repeatedly doing this, looking for bit flips. They’re basically turning the RAM on the microcontroller into a radiation detector.

It happens on the ground, too: High energy particles from cosmic ray-type radiation will go in and flip bits in your RAM. On the surface of the Earth, that’s very rare, but in space, when you’re out of the atmosphere and there’s more radiation, it’s much more common. They’re not using the sensors that we deliberately put on there for people to use. It was a clever little alternate usage for the hardware on there.

But still, the Sprites are pretty limited. I noticed on your Kickstarter you had mentioned doing something more elaborate in the future. Are you still thinking about a version 2.0? ZM: Oh yeah, for sure. The whole idea here is to create a general purpose, open-source platform for these tiny satellites. So I want this to become sort of like the space Arduino, if you will. It’s a platform that you can put your own sensors on and write your own code on. And it’s something that you can hack on and build yourself, like in a basement workshop, for not a lot of money.

We’re getting to a point where, in the next couple of years, it’s going to be realistic to have a sub-thousand-dollar satellite mission, so that a hobbyist or high school class could get a kit and put together something like one of these, and get it launched. I just think putting it in more people’s hands, and having people hack on it, and mess around with it, and come up with new ideas, is a powerful thing. Right now it’s really hard to put things in space, as evidenced by our experience and the experience of a lot of other people who have been trying to launch amateur satellites for the last several years. Like I said, it’s not a routine thing, it’s still kind of an exotic thing, and it’s expensive.

AF: That’s why we’re doubly excited about this. They’re both demonstration missions. The CRF-3 first stage is going to demonstrate reusability. It’s not just a one-shot component that is going to be recycled. These components are actually designed to be flown 10, 20, 30 times before they wear out.

Basically, it’s Elon Musk’s SpaceX vision to have a 100 percent reusable launch vehicle. And so the first stage actually has functional landing legs on it. When it’s launched, the first stage will actually do a gentle return to earth.

Their vision is that it will lower launch costs by a factor of 200. That’s why we’re excited about it — what we’re doing is making space accessible by using Moore’s Law. He’s making space accessible by lowering the cost by having reusable vehicles.


The Zero Gravity Cocktail Project


Zero Gravity Cocktail Glass and holder

Prototype Zero Gravity Cocktail Glass and holder

Satellites may be all the rage this year, but people could soon be traveling to space in greater numbers. One team is out to ensure we can all have a proper drink while exploring the final frontier.

While space exploration offers makers the opportunity to create an amazing assortment of hardware to orbit the planet, Samuel Coniglio is more concerned with making sure the people who will be living there someday have a sense of whimsy and fun in their lives. Part of that concern is ensuring we can all have a proper drink while staring down at our home planet.

Samuel Coniglio with 2006 prototype.

Samuel Coniglio with 2006 prototype. Photo courtesy of Samuel Coniglio.

The Zero Gravity Cocktail Project has taken almost a decade to come to fruition–and is still being refined. Coniglio’s concept for a space cup first took root in 2006 during an assignment for the Space Tourism Society creating futuristic products. Along with his famous “snuggle tunnel” he produced a simple martini glass for space. The design was crude and included a straw, emulating the Capri-Sun style pouches used to keep fluids contained for astronauts.

Although he knew it was lacking, Coniglio didn’t let the idea drop. In 2009, the idea for a “drink bot” got Coniglio on a team building a robotic bartender. The team had to learn solenoids, valves, fluid dynamics, electronics, and Arduino programming. The maker community in the Bay Area stepped in to help. “If you hang out at enough events, you’ll learn something,” says Coniglio. “People will teach you.” He credits the participants at the RoboGames with patience in sharing their knowledge.

COSMOBOT 2010 crew

COSMOBOT 2010 crew. Photo courtesy of Samuel Coniglio.

Once the COSMOBOT won a few awards, Coniglio and the team started thinking bigger; they wanted to build a drink bot for space. NASA Astronaut Don Pettit’s in-space coffee cup hack showed the need for better drinking experience in addition to a drink dispenser. The focus turned to creating a cup first, and a complimentary drink dispenser later. “Having a project really motivates you to learn new things,” mused Coniglio as we talked. “I researched fluid dynamics video on the Internet. Then I researched scientific papers on surface tension and capillary action.”

Sitting at a computer wasn’t enough to make the cup a reality. “There is a point where you have to quit thinking about it and start doing it,” Coniglio said with a grin. “I realized I had some amazing friends and just had to ask them to help.”

Zero Gravity Cocktail Project logo

Much like The Avengers, the Zero Gravity Cocktail Project team brought together a variety of people to pool their talents for a greater good. Coniglio is the space tourism expert. Nick Donaldson is a toy designer. Brent Heyning creates special effects and props for Hollywood. Russell Davis was Bartender of the Year in 2012. “Everyone brings something unique to the project,” explained Coniglio. They have spent the better part of a year discussing and developing prototypes, directly studying fluid dynamics on sample surfaces, and soliciting input from astronauts and other experts on weightlessness. [Full disclosure: I’ve advised the team based on my parabolic flight experience.]

Surface Tension Test

Surface tension test by Samuel Coniglio

The team experimented with various designs that allow fluid to flow in from the bottom (presumably from a future COSMOBOT) and through narrow channels around the interior of the cup to a sipping spot along the rim. Samuel says the team has carefully considered how someone will hold the glass, set it “down” in a weightless bar, and get a refill.  “We know that the aesthetic and experience of the cup adds to the cocktail,” said Coniglio. “People need to be able to smell, see, and enjoy the experience.”

The Zero Gravity Cocktail Project prototype glass

Samuel Coniglio poses with the Zero Gravity Cocktail Glass prototype.

The result of their hard work will be unveiled this week at the 2014 Yuri’s Night celebration at the California Science Center. Their plan is to create several prototypes to test on parabolic aircraft and suborbital flights. Coniglio’s dream? “We’d love to have Richard Branson toast to the first successful Virgin Galactic flight with a cocktail glass made specifically for space.”

Is the cocktail glass the end of the road for the team? “No way!” says Coniglio. The team is already filing patents and incorporating as a company to create more space-ready equipment. “We’re working to bridge the gap between the aerospace industry and everybody else,” explains Coniglio. “Design for space, market for Earth.” He added with a sly grin “We’re eager to find a sponsor to get us to space. We’ve got the glass, now we need the cocktail!”

Zero Gravity Cocktail Project logo

The new Zero Gravity Cocktail Project logo unveiled this week in LA.

Your Own Satellite: 7 Things to Know Before You Go


All I ask is a successful launch, a clean radio signal, and a life just long enough to achieve that goal.

If high-altitude balloons just aren’t high-altitude enough, if you feel frustrated by the pace of space development, or if you just really, really like rockets and hardware, I think launching your own satellite is an excellent decision. But first, what do you want your satellite to do? Here are 7 key things you need to know before you launch your personal spacecraft into orbit at 17,000 miles an hour.

Aurora viewed from the ISS in low earth orbit, image courtesy NASA

Aurora viewed from the ISS in low earth orbit, image courtesy NASA

What Is a Picosatellite?

Picosatellites, by definition, are extremely small, lightweight satellites. Any picosatellite will tend to have these core components:

  • An antenna
  • A radio transmitter for uplinking commands or downloading your data
  • A computer-on-a-chip such as an Arduino or a Basic-X24
  • A power system, most often solar cells plus a battery plus a power bus
  • Sensors

The progenitor of the pico class is the CubeSat, an open source architecture that lets you pack anything you want into the 10cm × 10cm × 10cm cube.

The CubeSat is a satellite as cute as a pumpkin. Forbes reported on one vendor, Pumpkin Inc., that supplies premade CubeSats. CubeSat itself is a specification, not a piece of off-the-shelf hardware, so Pumpkin decided to prebuild kits and sell them. If you have your own rocket to launch your CubeSat on, for $7,500 they’ll sell you a CubeSat kit.

This neatly parallels InterOrbital Systems’ TubeSat. InterOrbital Systems (IOS) has the edge in price/performance, as they throw the launch in for the same cost. But it looks like neither IOS nor Pumpkin provide premades, just kits. So there’s still hobbyist work involved, but kits remove the need for engineering and just leave the fun part of assembly and integration.

TubeSat and CubeSat, two variants of a picosatellite, with quarters shown for scale

TubeSat and CubeSat, two variants of a picosatellite, with quarters shown for scale

TubeSats and CubeSats are slightly different, of course, and I am insanely pleased that both are advancing the idea of platform kits. This is a great step in the commodification of space research. Even if the mini CubeSat looks eerily similar to a Hellraiser Lemarchand box.

How Much Does It Cost to Launch?

If you build a CubeSat, securing a rocket to launch it on is not difficult, merely expensive. A typical CubeSat launch cost is estimated at $40,000. There are several commercial providers promising future CubeSat rockets, assuming they complete development. Various NASA and International Space Station projects accept some proposals using the CubeSat architecture. There are more companies entering the private launch business each year, so prospects for getting a launch are becoming more robust.

The TubeSat architecture from InterOrbital Systems is an alternative schema. Currently only supported by InterOrbital, it is very cost-effective. You get the schematics, main hardware components, and a launch on their still-in-development rocket for the single price of $8,000. A TubeSat uses a slightly longer hexagonal architecture, 12cm in length and 4cm in diameter.

You can also work with a custom architecture if you have access to a rocket launch (through a college or university, perhaps), but currently the primary two players are the open CubeSat spec and the private TubeSat alternative.

Where Is Orbit?

Where will your picosatellite go? It’s nearly a given that your picosatellite will go to low earth orbit (LEO), a broad band ranging from about 150km up to perhaps 600km. This is the region that also has many science satellites and the International Space Station (ISS). It is in and below the ionosphere, the very, very thin part of the atmosphere that also coincides with much of the Earth’s magnetic field.

The Earth’s magnetic field shields us from the Sun’s most fierce activity. High-energy particles, flare emissions, and coronal mass ejections (CMEs; basically blobs of Sun-stuff) get shunted by the magnetic field before they can reach ground. Where the magnetic field lines dip near the poles, this energy expresses itself as the aurora.

Low earth orbit view of an aurora (image ISS006E18372, courtesy of NASA)

Low earth orbit view of an aurora (image ISS006E18372, courtesy of NASA)

Above the ionosphere, the space environment can be hostile because of solar activity. Below it, the radiation risks are much lower. This is why the ISS is kept in LEO. LEO is, at heart, about as safe as space can get. It’s also where your picosatellite is likely to live.

A typical LEO orbit has about a 90-minute period. That is, it rotates around the Earth once every 90 minutes, doing about 15 orbits per day. Orbits can be positioned near the Earth’s equator (equatorial orbits) or loop from the North to South Pole (polar orbits). Similarly, orbits can be nearly circular, or be highly eccentric—coming closer to the Earth at one end of the orbit, and then moving far away at the other.

How Long Will My Satellite Last?

Your orbit is entirely determined by what your rocket provider has sold you. At the hobbyist level, you’re going to most likely get a standard 250km or so nearly circular orbit, either equatorial or polar. Such an orbit lasts (because of drag by the tenuous ionosphere) from 3 to 16 weeks before the satellite will suffer a fiery reentry.

At picosatellite masses, this means your satellite will go up and not return. You have less than three months to gather data. The picosatellite will then, essentially, vaporize neatly upon reentry (no space junk risk!)

How’s the Weather Up There?

LEO Conditions and Viability

The ionosphere is called that because it is a very thin plasma of electrically charged atoms (ions) and electrons, due to the ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the Sun. Technically it extends from about 50km up to over 1,000km (thanks Wikipedia!), but LEO starts at 150km — below that, you can’t maintain a stable orbit. The ionosphere, as mentioned, is driven by solar activity. The portion facing the Sun has more ionization; also, solar activity can drive its behavior strongly. There are also dips in the magnetic field line, leading to radiation increases at lower altitudes. We’ve mentioned the poles, and regions such as the South Atlantic Anomaly (SAA) also have field lines that dip lower.

If you’re sending up sensors, you’ll want to ensure a couple things:

  • They have a sensitivity level appropriate to the level of signal you’re trying to measure.
  • They have a dynamic range that lets you extract meaningful data.

LEO Temperatures

A metal plate in LEO will cycle from –170°C to 123°C depending on its Sun face and its time in sunlight. If your picosatellite is spinning, this will even out the heat distribution a bit, but that’s the range to assume. An orbit has approximately half its time in sunlight and the other half in Earth shade, so the temperature behavior is worth modeling.

Since the picosatellite is spinning, this range is fortunately smaller (as heat has time to distribute and dissipate), and with a 90-minute orbit, you should cycle through three ranges: too cold to register; transition regions where the sensor returns valid, slowly changing data; and possibly oversaturating at the high end. You can add a heater if necessary—satellites have used heaters and coolers depending on the instrument and facing.

Therefore, a thermal sensor (like a microDig Hot brand sensor) that covers –40°C up to 100°C will suffice. The range of –40°C to 100°C is a feasible area to measure. In any event, past that range, the rest of the satellite electronics may have trouble.

LEO Light

Similarly, a light-detecting sensor, for a spinning picosatellite, is likely to return just a binary signal: super-bright Sun in view and Sun not in view. So all that it will measure is the timing of when the Sun is in view. The function of the light sensors will be largely binary, to catch Sun-dark cycles as it spins, as well as the overall day/night cycle of the orbit. If there is a slight tumble to the satellite, all the better. These light sensors will provide a basic measure of the satellite’s position and tumbling. If you want to measure actual light levels, your design will have to ensure the Sun doesn’t saturate your detector.

LEO Magnetic Field

The ionosphere has a field strength on the order of 0.3–0.6 gauss, with fluctuations of 5%. For a polar orbit, you’ll have higher variability and higher magnetic fields than an equatorial orbit (as the Earth’s magnetic field lines dip near the poles, hence the auroras). If you want to measure fluctuation, not the field strength, you need to capture 0.06–0.1 gauss signals. A $10 Hall effect sensor plus an op-amp could measure variations down to as low as 0.06 gauss if there’s no large external magnetic field. Below that, the noise from your sensor’s circuits, not the sensor, will likely be the limiting factor.

What About Particle (Radiation) Damage?

The mission life is short (less than three months), so you don’t need to worry about cumulative damage. I used to do radiation damage models back in school, and it turns out that modern electronics are surprisingly robust on short time scales. You primarily will have single-event upsets (SEPs) that scramble a sensor or computer, but since you likely don’t need 100% uptime, this shouldn’t be a problem. In fact, glitches will add interesting character to your derived data. Should you encounter, say, a solar storm, it’ll be interesting to see how the sensors deal with it, either with saturation or with spurious signals. A proportional counter or ersatz equivalent (like a microDig Reach) can measure these particle counts.

And finally, the most important thing to know:

What Is My Mission?

Just what the heck do you want your picosatellite to do? You can neatly break out the typical picosatellite choices into science missions, engineering missions, and artworks. A science payload measures stuff. An engineering payload tests hardware or software. An art project instantiates a high concept. We will visit each.


On a science mission, your picosatellite will measure something. Science is about measurement at its heart. There are three types of missions you can do: pointing, in-situ, and engineering builds.

A pointing mission is like a telescope. Your picosatellite points at an object of interest—the Sun, the Moon, stars, the sky background, or the Earth—and observes it. Note that pointing at the Earth requires a license—not hard to get, but privacy is protected in hobby space.

You can point randomly, but that doesn’t seem very useful. You can set a survey mode, where your picosatellite is given a specific orientation in its orbit so that, each orbit, it sweeps across the sky in a predictable fashion. Or, you can do active pointing, making the picosatellite look where you want.

Active pointing is fairly challenging. You need to know your position very accurately. Using inertial references—knowledge of the initial orbit plus internal prediction of how the satellite is traveling—is inexact for sensor pointing purposes. Therefore, pointing typically requires some sort of star-trackers. These are two or more wide-field telescopes that image the sky and compare it to an onboard catalog of known bright reference stars.

Star tracking is technically complex, and likely beyond the weight and design limitations of a typical picosatellite. However, see “Engineering!” below, for more on this.

A more common picosatellite science usage is in-situ measurements. This is the use of sensors that measure the region the satellite is in without requiring pointing. A thermometer is a perfect example of an in-situ detector. It measures the temperature, and you don’t need to precisely point it to know it works.

Other in-situ measurements from LEO can include the electric and magnetic field in the ionosphere, light from the Sun or reflected Earth glow, measuring the ionospheric density, or tracking the kinematics of your orbit and positioning (how you are moving).

Or maybe you don’t want to measure something scientifically, you just want to build stuff. That’s engineering.


An engineering picosatellite uses the platform to try out some new space hardware concepts, or to give you practice in building your own variants of known space hardware.

You can make a picosatellite to test out any of the hardware components. A new power system, a new positioning method, a new type of radio or relay communications, new sensors—really any component of the satellite can be built and improved.

Three ounces of flyable instrumentation

Three ounces of flyable instrumentation

Some picosatellite projects have involved testing—on a small scale—new satellite propulsion concepts, ranging from ion engines to solar sails. Want to test an inflatable space station in miniature, or see if you can make a picosatellite that unfolds to form a large ham radio bounce point? Build it!

Another engineering motive can be to test specific components: for example, comparing a custom electronics rig against a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) component to see if satellites (of any size) can be made more cost-effective. Or you can test new data compression methods or alternative methods of doing on-board operations.

Innovation in operations is a subset of engineering goals worth exploring further. Picosatellites could be used to test the coordination of a constellation of satellites. They can be test beds for orbital mechanics studies, or lessons in coordinated satellite operations. As the cheapest way to get access to space, they are excellent test beds for prototyping new ways of doing satellite work before moving to million-dollar missions.

Art Concept!

Finally, there are concept pieces. My own “Project Calliope” TubeSat gathers in-situ measurements of the ionosphere and transmits them to Earth as music, a process called sonification. The intent is to return a sense of the rhythm and activity level of space, rather than numeric data, so we can get a sense of just how the Sun-Earth system behaves.

You aren’t a real mission until you have your own flight patch.

You aren’t a real mission until you have your own flight patch.

You can launch a satellite to do anything. Send ashes to space. Ship up a Himalayan prayer flag. Launch your titanium wedding ring into orbit. Any art, music, or art/music/science hybrid idea is welcome because it’s your satellite. Just give it a purpose or utility beyond just the spectacle of being able to launch your own satellite.

Defining science (courtesy

Defining science (courtesy

Solve a Decadal Problem for All of Humanity

Here’s a design exercise that asks you to invent a satellite. The point is not whether you can build, but whether you can conceive and outline an idea that is worth building in the first place.

Choose one of the decadal goals for Earth observing, heliophysics, astronomy, or planetary science, and design a mission concept to fulfill that task using a small satellite platform—NASA SMEX or smaller.

Invent your satellite and make a five-minute pitch that you would present to NASA to ask for funding. Limit yourself to a satellite with one or two (at most) instruments. Here are some decadal reference links:


One example of a decadal goal, from Earth observing, might be:

Changing ice sheets and sea level. Will there be catastrophic collapse of the major ice sheets, including those of Greenland and the West Antarctic and, if so, how rapidly will this occur? What will be the time patterns of sea-level rise as a result?

A good pitch might include:

  • A mission summary chart (type/wavelength/goal/who/orbit)
  • History of any past missions that tackled this
  • List of desired instrument loadout: what instrument types and what they each measure plus whether or not it needs focusing optics
  • Resolution range per detector (spatial, spectral, timing, brightness)
  • Cost estimate, based on comparison/analogy to similar missions

To evaluate a good pitch, consider whether:

  • Your goal and satellite are plausible.
  • Your approach clearly seems to be the right approach for the task.

This is the skill of both business and academic proposals, where you must not only convince the audience that you are the right person for the task, but also that the task itself is worth doing!


Building your own picosatellite is not just a means to an end, but a worthwhile goal itself. Even if you never launch it, the skills and experience you gain in making your own real satellite can be an awesome experience.


This article is adapted from DIY Satellite Platforms and DIY Instruments for Amateur Space by Sandy Antunes. This series, which also includes Surviving Orbit the DIY Way, is a deep and user-friendly resource for would-be spacecraft builders, available from the Maker Shed at Watch for the fourth book in the series, DIY Data Communication for Amateur Spacecraft, coming this summer.

Mars Rover Art Car: Bringing Space to the Playa


What does Burning Man and space exploration have in common? Well, any Burner (and likely non-Burners) will tell you that the Playa looks like another world. I have been fortunate enough to travel across the planet with NASA Astrobiologists in search of the driest and saltiest places on Earth. These researchers are specifically looking for the weirdest types of “extremophile” life live in those environments; the idea is that in these Martian ‘analogs’ on Earth, we get an idea of what we should be looking for on the red planet.

My first experience at Burning Man in 2010 was spent in the background, taking in all the new experiences. I felt at home really, except that in this dry, salty desert I had found a different kind of ‘extremophilic community.’ That first experience was eye opening for me, not just from the artistic perspective, but due to the engineering and self-reliance that was necessary. Just like my trips to the far corners of Earth…and not unlike what an astronaut would experience on their way to Mars.

After a few false starts, I finally returned to the Playa with new crew of explorers named the Desert Wizards of Mars. Started by my friend and fellow space explorer “Admiral” Charles White, the Desert Wizards built the Mars Rover Art Car on not just blood, sweat, and tears, but also also on the personal  commitments of local Desert Wizards: Bender, Gary, Jason, Justin, Krista, Mandy, Matt, Miguel, Mike, Pickle, Pat, Rach, Reba, Russell, Shawna, Susan, Tom, and Widget, (and others I may be forgetting), but also the many donors to our KickStarter campaign.

Photo taken at White Sky Ranch of Mars Rover Art Car and Human Spirit in the background. Image credit: Charles White

Author working installing ethernet on the Mars Rover Art Car. Image Credit Charles White

For the 2013 Burn, my primary responsibility was to service internet and video streaming capability of the art car. I also ended up being the Chief Pilot, driving my fellow orange suited ‘rovernauts’. We learned many lessons learned about this experience — many of the same kinds of lessons learned we proscribe for exploration missions: Train multiple teammates multiple skills; always bring extra screws; things like that.

The 2013 Burn was also personally rewarding to me in several big ways. First, I helped mend the official live video stream, a big deal for thousands of viewers who could not otherwise attend the event. Moreover, the Mars Rover Art Car’s video system live streamed the Man Burn from inside the fire circle; a first! It pays to demonstrate awareness of Federal safety rules and responsible behavior to the Bureau of Land Management.

The second big reward was this photo Tom Varden took. You know I framed that one….

The most rewarding experience for my 2013 Burn though is the on-going inspiration I get from knowing Captain Everything, Ms Tina Merrie Newman.

For this #DIYSpaceWeek series of blogs on Makezine, I asked the Admiral and Captain Everything to share with us some of their personal experiences with the Mars Rover Art Car.

Q: What inspired you to make a model of the Mars Rover for Burning Man?

ADMIRAL Charles White: Back in 2008, I was the manager of the JPL Problem Reporting System supporting the Mars Science Laboratory, now known as the Curiosity Rover. I was inspired to build the Mars Rover Art Car for Burning Man 2013 when I attended Yuri’s Night 2008 at NASA Ames Research Center. I worked as a NASA staffer and VIP escort to Anousheh Ansari.

During the event, I got down on the main floor where there was art and scientific displays sandwiched between DJ music dance floors. I met the visitors, who were mostly in their 20’s and 30’s, and they were treating us NASA folks like rock stars.  They asked questions about my job with seemingly genuine interest. I have to admit that their hunger for space exploration, technology, and science blew away my stereotypes of that generation.

CAPTAIN “Tina Merrie” EVERYTHING: While I was getting my BFA in graphic design, I quickly realized that I could not stand just sitting around and clicking with one finger on a computer all day.

It all started with my first glimpse of Burning Man in a series of documentaries called Profiles in Dust. Before I had even gone to the event, I was surrounded by people that were eager to share their experience with the ridiculous artworks. I remember watching the video and seeing things that spit fire, spun, and were made out of metal and flames. All hurdles of expectation, gender profiles, and upbringing became null and void, and that is quite a free place to be.

The next day I enrolled in a metal sculpture program. I was shocked and relieved to see many other women wanting to learn to weld. Honestly, I never finished that master’s degree because I deemed it more valuable to get out and get my hands dirty on projects instead of staying in school another three years.

CW: A couple of years after Yuri’s Night Bay Area 2008, I helped build two art cars for Burning Man 2011: “Charlie the Unicorn Art Car” and the “Shoe Choo”.  I gained a great deal of experience from building those cars that I wanted to use to build something special for Burning Man 2013.

Remembering how much those young folk loved science and dancing, I took a gamble to create an artistic, fun version of the Curiosity Rover.

TM:  In 2012 I was in the middle of a typically tragic art car break down with Charlie the Unicorn en route to the Playa when the Admiral shared his plans for the Mars Rover Art Car. It felt just like he had asked me to the prom!

Q: What was it like to build the Mars Rover Art Car?  How was that experience?

CW: Simply amazing! In September 2012, Tina and I participated with a team of artists and craftspeople from the Los Angeles League of Arts that were going to build a 14 foot tall metal angel called the Human Spirit.

Many of the Desert Wizards of Mars crew post in front of the "Human Spirit" at the 2013 Los Angeles Decompression. Image by Ray Cirino

Many of the Desert Wizards of Mars crew pose in front of the “Human Spirit” at the 2013 Los Angeles Decompression. Image credit: Ray Cirino

My past experiences as an art car maker guided me to lead that project successfully.  When we were done, the team threw up their hands and said, “now what do we do?”

I said, “I’m going to build the Mars Rover Art Car.”

We held a meeting at my house, and the group was very excited regarding the build. We formed a new group called the Desert Wizards of Mars and soon we were turning steel and sawing wood on the old chassis off the former Shoe Choo.

We put out word on Facebook, and in a short time we had over 50 people all volunteering to lending a hand in the construction of the car. The excitement for the project exploded.

TM: At first I was a little worried about how I could complete this task of building and managing a big portion of the art car, but it was “trial by fire.” I hope that more builders get to have this experience. Even if you think you are way out of your league, just take that first step toward what you want to build. You’ll be amazed by what you can create.

Charles White channeling his best Carl Sagan impression as he explains to viewers the Mars Rover Art Car on the Playa

Charles White channeling his best Carl Sagan impression as he explains to viewers the Mars Rover Art Car on the Playa

Q: What was it like out on the Playa?

TM: I’ve never seen so many people appreciate a project based on science and space exploration before. We felt like VIPs when we rolled the Mars Rover out for it’s first tour de force on the Playa. I’ve built many art projects before, but taking the Mars Rover out for her first spin will always stand out in my mind as a highlight of my life to date. I had no idea that so many people were excited to see it be there.

CW: We made Burning Man history. We were the first art car to be placed in front of the inner circle of the Man burn, and we were the first art car to broadcast via the internet from our remote cameras the live event of both the Man burn, and the art structure known as Cradle of MIR.

Q: What is in the future for the Mars Rover Art Car and for the Desert Wizards?

CW: The Mars Rover Art Car has a functional weather station. It has 7 cameras used for navigation, an infrared all weather camera, and a telescope that can see the rings of Saturn. The car also features a unique Rocket Stove that was designed by Ray Cirino. According to Ray, it is the most efficient wood burning rocket stove on the planet. We plan to keep on adding new science instruments including a new robotic arm to take ground samples.

The merging of science and art was such a hit, that it was suggested that we take the Mars Rover Art Car beyond Burning Man and actually take it to schools to inspire younger children to study the science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM) subjects.

Q: Why do you want to teach children to play with fire?

TM: While I am a newcomer to making things go “BOOM”, I do understand that there is a science behind pyrotechnics which demands a well structured safety protocol. There are a lot of future pyrotechnicians out there playing on their own that I want to inspire responsibly. My hope is that we can bring the Mars Rover Art Car out to more schools to teach these things. There is no reason not to teach about science, space exploration, collaborative art, and pyrotechnics together. My goal for the Mars Rover Art Car is to inspire an interest in these things while providing education in safety.

Tina Merrie explaining to students the Mars Rover Art Car fire effect operation. Image Credit: Charles White

Mars Rover Art Car Fire Effect. Image Credit Charles White

I also wish I had known when I was younger that there were so many rockstar women builders out there. I was raised to believe that my only options were to be a doctor, lawyer, actress, or a classical fine artist. Because of that mindset, I followed the straight and assumed “normal” educational path, always feeling like I was just working on someone else’s checklist of what to do.

Q: Do you have any words of advice towards those that want to become a builder?

CW: Check social funding sites, or regional Burning Man groups that may be forming up to build something for Burning Man. These are great people to know and they are always looking for helpful people, sometimes regardless of skills.

TM:Yes. No matter what you want to be in your life, even if it’s something completely outlandish like building metal that spits fire, just try and do it safely. If you have an interest, no matter how weird, look around you and find the safe role models. When you see someone doing what you dream of, talk to that person. Never be ashamed of wanting to do what interests you. Learn. Listen. Give new ideas. Work hard. And always take care of your team.

Look for Admiral Jet Burns and Captain Everything at tonight’s Yuri’s Night Los Angeles event at the California Science Center. Look for the orange jumpsuits, you can’t miss them.

Flight of the Space-Grazing Ping Pong Balls

On September 27, 2014, JP Aerospace will send 2000 ping pong balls filled with experiments to the edge of space.


They are called PongSats. Students from all over the world send us their PongSats and we float them nearly 100,000 feet above the Earth on weather balloons. Then the balloon is released, and the PongSat payload parachutes back to earth. After the landing, the balls are returned to their creators along with data from the flight.


I’m always completely floored by what folks put in their PongSats. They’ve sent projects as simple as plant seeds and as complex as full upper atmospheric labs. My favorite is the marshmallow: You put a marshmallow inside the ping pong ball, and at 100,000 feet it puffs up to fill the ball completely. Then it freeze dries. When the student gets it back, she can see the results of traveling the top of the atmosphere.

Tandem Center Cam 2

Our next launch is planned the Black Rock desert in Nevada. We fly up to sixteen research missions a year, so we can reserve space on each one for PongSats, free for students. The airships that carry them are called High Racks, and one of our tandem vehicles recently broke the world altitude record for airships — by four miles. They are made of foam and carbon fiber, with four separate telemetry links to track the High Rack during flight. The racks land in the Sierra Nevadas, anywhere from 20 to 200 miles away from the launch site, so we have to collect them using four-wheel drive vehicles.


JP Aerospace is an all volunteer DIY space program. Over the past eight years we have flown over 14,000 PongSats to 100,000 feet aboard high altitude research balloons, and we recently launched a Kickstarter to fund the upcoming September mission.

Kerbal Space Program: Now with More Asteroid!



Pushing an asteroid in Kerbal Space Program.

Kerbal Space Program (KSP) is a space program simulator game that’s the closest most of us are going to get to running our own space agency. For those of you who haven’t heard of KSP, it’s awesome, addictive and actually pretty accurate — at least the orbital dynamics and other physics, if not the engineering. And it just got better with a new Asteroid Redirect Mission, created in collaboration with NASA.

Introducing the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) in Kerbal Space Program

It’s not just amateur space geeks playing KSP. Reports are that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is obsessed with the game,

“…half of JPL is playing that game right now,” Douglas Ellison, NASA JPL

There’s no better — or more interesting — space simulator out there, and now NASA has stepped in and is actually teaming with the game’s makers to improve it. Announced at the beginning of March at SXSW, the collaboration between NASA and the game’s producers was released last week.

A play-through of the new Asteroid Redirect Mission.

Part of the publicity surrounding NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge program, the new update to the game offers players a chance to embark on a virtual version of the real-world NASA mission of the same name.

While it might not directly help NASA to “find all asteroid threats to human populations and know what to do about them,” there’s a lot to be gained from playing Kerbal Space Program, because there’s real science behind the actions of the bumbling, cartoonish Kerbals. This is a game that can be taken as seriously as you want to take it. Now with added asteroids, it should not only encourage makers to contribute better ways to hunt for asteroids, but also help to engage the maker movement in NASA’s grand challenge to figure out what to do about any space rocks that threaten Earth.